This season of The Affair has been digging deep into the contradictions of family life, the ways our loved ones can hurt us, and how we can be cruel to them in return. When we peel back the layers of love — or what we think of as love — we sometimes find a startling ugliness.
In this episode, the main preoccupation of The Affair snaps into focus: It’s about the stories we tell ourselves and how those stories delude us. The show has always been about this in a grander sense, considering the duel perspectives of the main characters. But I don’t think it’s ever nailed so clearly how the myths we create, the traditions we follow, and the stories we cling to can inform us as individuals.
The Affair handles these themes with such dexterity in this episode, I didn’t want it to end. I couldn’t help but want more. How has the show evolved so quickly? There’s a scene in which Noah meets with Harry to discuss his new book. He’s struggling through it, which isn’t surprising — he’s also juggling life as a father and a teacher. Harry offers a suggestion: He can pack and leave for a while, but he needs the book in stores this year. Otherwise, his career will lose momentum. What’s most interesting, though, comes when Harry talks about what kind of writer Noah thinks he is and the kind of writer he truly may be. Harry suggests that Noah is meant to write pulpy literature, but his ego and his fear make him believe otherwise. It’s clear that Noah looks at Descent as a one-off, something populist that operates on a lower level than his grand aspirations of dense literary work. What I find interesting is how this conversation operates on a meta-textual level as a critique of The Affair itself.
The Affair sometimes gets lost in its noble aspirations. When it tries to be a very literary show, it often gets muddled into tepid pretension, too obsessed with minute differences to focus on its real strengths. The show is at its best — including this episode — when it embraces the pulpy nature of its premise and its lurid, fiery, and soapy operatics. There’s a lot of the latter in this episode, especially when it comes to Cole.
I’ve admitted to wanting to see Cole and Alison get back together. I love the chemistry between Joshua Jackson and Ruth Wilson. Their onscreen rapport provides the show with some of its best material. Watching how Cole interacts with Luisa sort of dims that possibility, though. They’re comfortable with each other as they plan their wedding and talk about their future; at times, the show frames them as a downright blissful couple. They’ve moved beyond their past hurt, including their inability to have biological children. Happiness looks good on Cole. But will it really last? What happens when Joanie’s paternity becomes clear? The show hasn’t definitively answered that, but it’s danced around the idea a lot. I’m pretty convinced that Cole is Joanie’s father.
Nevertheless, things are far from perfect for Cole. His plan to introduce Luisa to his mother, Cherry, takes an unexpected turn when they learn she’s working as a housekeeper at their hotel. This is yet another way to needle the point about Cole’s supposed responsibility to his family — and how his mother has had to struggle greatly to stay afloat — while he sits on the pile of money from selling the house. “It’s time for us to make our own traditions,” Luisa says to Cherry, which certainly doesn’t help cut the tension.
Things get worse when Scotty interrupts, stumbling in loudly to proclaim, “The prodigal son returns.” His drug addiction is spiraling out of control, but he’s still hellbent on buying the Lobster Roll and turning it into a nightclub, despite the measly funds he has and the doubt surrounding his alleged investor. Cole tells him to use the money to get into rehab. He doesn’t take kindly to that suggestion. Scotty is a wreck.
Things get even more awkward when they all go to visit Luisa’s mother, who you may remember works for Margaret, Noah’s former mother-in-law. Margaret proposes that they use her property for the wedding. She says she’ll pay for everything even after learning about Cole’s last name and putting everything together, despite the awkwardness. But it is an offer neither he nor Luisa is interested in taking.
Despite all this tension, Cole feels more settled as a person than ever, thanks to Luisa’s influence. He proposes they buy the Lobster Roll property and make it into a restaurant; she can manage it, fulfilling her dream. The only hiccup? He needs to ask Alison to cover the rest of the cost. Of course, Luisa isn’t on board with that idea. Why would she be? I understand why she looks at Alison as untrustworthy, to put it mildly. However, I also sympathize with Alison. That’s what happens when you watch The Affair. You’re convinced to empathize with characters who contradict and quarrel with each other.
And then, the show can be beautiful. In one shot, the small figures of Cole and Luisa are tucked into the lower left corner of the frame, with a cliff overlooking the crashing waves of the sea. That shot is so romantic, it feels like a dream — which makes me wonder how Luisa sees all these events.
The meeting in which Cole and Alison win the bid on the Lobster Roll property plays out in a minor key, at first. The show definitely seems to be framing them as friends. They may still love each other, but the way that love manifests is changing. The scene shifts with Scotty’s arrival; he really believes he’s got a chance to go into business with them. Things quickly deteriorate. Scotty believes Cole has everything he ever wanted. The Lobster Roll was supposed to be his shot, his chance at redemption. Scotty threatens to tell Cole something that would mess up his entire life, calling out Alison repeatedly, but without hinting at Joanie’s paternity. Still, his threat lingers all the same. After Scotty breaks down crying, Cole promises to bring Scotty into the business if he’ll go to rehab. As Cole drives Scotty off, he asks about the vague threat. Scott ignores the question, but Cole deserves an answer. When will he get it?
Noah, on the other hand, is getting answers to questions he didn’t even think to ask. Such as: Can I trust Alison? Who is she, really? He’s never given these questions much thought because Alison is still only a concept to him, not a person. Everyone on this show has always been selfish and a bit reckless, but Noah is straight-up dastardly. He’s the embodiment of entitled, toxic masculinity. Noah believes that he’s a better man than he really is. This comes into focus when he brings flowers to Alison’s class as they wrap up the midterm, only to learn she dropped it six weeks ago. He gets his answers about her from an unlikely source: Oscar.
This brings him back to Montauk to look for the full picture. Noah quickly imagines the worst: Alison is cheating on him with Cole. She’s leaving him. She doesn’t love him. Oscar operates as the devil on his shoulder, assuming the worst about Alison and casting doubt on their union. Oscar hammers home the idea that Alison shouldn’t be trusted. He says he looked at her like Noah once did: She seems so beautiful, so sad, and he believed he could save her. As if saving a person is ever possible in that way. Noah travels to Max’s vacation home, seeing him for the first time since the hedonistic party a year ago.
“Do you think she’s an evil person or something?” Noah asks. I can see how Alison’s decision blindsided him. It was something they should have discussed. However, all of Noah’s complaints — including what he says when he finally confronts her — apply to him much more than they do to her. Noah expects honesty and loyalty from Alison, but he doesn’t reciprocate in kind. I don’t think I’ve ever hated a television character as much as I hate Noah.
Things take an unexpected left turn after Noah mentions that Helen is serious with Vic, which catches Max’s attention. It takes Noah a moment to understand the root of his curiosity.
Noah: “Did you fuck my wife?”
Max: “Your ex-wife.”
It’s amazing to watch how territorial Noah gets about Helen. He can’t see himself clearly. Noah has absolved himself of any wrongdoing, describing his affair with Alison “as a moment of weakness.” The insults start flying. Noah says Max presents himself one way, but thinks he can buy people. He says people only stick around him for his money. What Max says about Noah, though, is much more telling: “All you ever wanted is more. All I ever wanted was her.”
After Noah confronts Alison, things don’t end on a hopeful note. She decides to go ahead with the restaurant despite his objections; she desperately needs something for herself. When Noah faces Max again in the courtroom, Max’s testimony proves to be a surprise incrimination. But what stays with me from Noah’s perspective happens before any of this. As he’s driving down a Montauk street, reality overlaps with the way he imagines the end of Descent. He pictures Alison in the middle of the road, then he speeds up to run her over — until his phone rings, breaking his macabre daydream. What does this say about him? What do any of the ugly things Noah has done say about him?
Maybe Noah is asking the wrong questions. He needs to start wondering if he really wants to be a good man, or if he’s even capable of being good. The answer may be too much for him to handle.